Near-death experiences (NDEs) are far more common than most people realise. They are reported by men, women and children regardless of nationality, religion or education level. One Gallup poll showed 8 million adult Americans have experienced one. Other estimates suggest between four and nine per cent of the general population have experienced a NDE. Some of these stories have now been recounted in bestselling Christian books and films. What should we make of this strange phenomenon?
Although NDEs are thought to have occurred throughout history, the modern discovery can be traced to December 1943 when a 20-yearold private in the US army, George Ritchie, was pronounced dead. Nine minutes afterwards, his corpse was showing signs of life.
Ritchie later recounted what happened to him in those intervening minutes between dying and coming back to life. He found himself outside his body and still in the army hospital, not realising that he had died. He was consumed with a desire to be home for Christmas, and dashed off in what he thought was the direction of his house. He noted several features that he saw on this journey (a café and some blinking warning lights) which were later corroborated as accurate, although Ritchie would have had no previous knowledge of them. Eventually he realised that he was only a spirit whom other people could not see, so he returned to the army hospital. As he stood by his own body again, the room filled with light and he knew that he had to stand in the loving presence of Jesus Christ, “the Son of God”. This light was intense, unlike any light Ritchie had seen before, and also intensely compassionate. In this light Ritchie was shown his past life. He responded with “self-pity and self-excuse… wanting to justify myself…”
Ritchie was taken by Jesus to see a city, then a vast plain, then a kind of university. In each place people were self-absorbed. “I realised that there was a common denominator…the failure to see Jesus. Whether it was a physical appetite, an earthly concern, or absorption with self – whatever got in the way of his light created the separation into which we stepped at death.” Ritchie was then lifted far above the earth from where he saw, at a great distance, a city which he knew to be heaven. With great reluctance he returned to his body.
Between four and nine per cent of the general population have experienced a nde
In 1965 he recounted this experience to a philosophy student, Raymond Moody. Moody was intrigued and investigated the experiences of other people who had also apparently died and come back to life. He also trained as a psychiatrist (as did George Ritchie). Moody found that although each experience was unique, they all had common traits (see box on p.49). His book on the subject, Life After Life (Mockingbird) was published in 1975 and the term ‘neardeath experience’ (NDE) was coined.
Heaven is for real
Ritchie’s story comes from a time when tales like these were very far from common. In recent years, however, there has been a proliferation of these NDE stories. And many of them have come from Christians.
In 2003, a few months after he went through emergency surgery for a burst appendix, 4-year-old Colton Burpo started talking about having been in wonderful light, meeting Jesus riding a rainbowcoloured horse, and a sister and great-grandfather who he had never known. Colton’s father, Todd, was pastor of a Wesleyan church in Nebraska. Todd eventually believed that his son’s experience was “for real”, a valid experience of heaven. Todd’s bestselling book Heaven is for Real (Thomas Nelson) followed, and was turned into a film of the same name. Colton continues to talk about 47 his experience, mostly in churches.
While Colton has maintained that his experience was indeed for real, another boy with a similar story has retracted his claim. Alex Malarkey’s experience was recounted by Alex with his father, Kevin, in the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (Tyndale House), published in 2010 and later made into a film. After a serious road accident in 2004 when Alex was 6 years old, he experienced heaven before returning to this life and learning to live as a paraplegic. In 2012, however, Alex issued a contrary statement: “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” He called on people to base their faith only on the Bible and not on any personal experiences. This plea to trust the Bible over our experience is a common one among Christians who are more sceptical of NDEs.
The scientific view
Christian critics point to discrepancies between some details in NDEs and those seen by John in the book of Revelation. There are also differences between NDEs. Sceptics point out that if everyone is visiting the same place during death, then their stories should be more similar. Another objection is how some NDEs appear to draw on common cultural themes. For example, could Colton’s vision of Jesus’ rainbow-coloured horse be generated from his memories of My Little Pony? Critics also highlight the continuing new age beliefs, such as reincarnation, of some who have been through NDEs. From a Christian point of view, if these NDEs are real, surely people should come back believing in heaven, but not in reincarnation.
Can science help us understand this phenomenon? In 2014 the results of the world’s largest study of NDEs was published. AWARE (the term comes from AWAreness during REsuscitation) found one person for whom: “Consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted.” The main conclusion was that further study is needed. However, it is interesting to note how more people reported fearful and persecutory experiences rather than pleasant ones. These experiences are hard to assess. Many people experience terminal agitation when coming close to death, the great unknown. Distinguishing what is anguish approaching death from anguish in and after death is difficult.
A vision of Gehenna or Hades
The fact that some people have NDEs of a place that is the opposite of heaven is one of the strong correlations between NDEs and Christian belief. It stands against the prevailing view that everyone goes to heaven. Many of those who have these NDEs report returning from hell or being taken out of hell, usually into the presence of a mysterious figure described as a Being of Light, before returning to this world. Each of them report innumerable others in this hellish place.
People apparently being rescued from hell by a Being of Light is at odds with the traditional understanding that there is no escape from hell. The traditional understanding, however, is a mixing together of the two biblical words Hades and Gehenna. But what if these two different words refer to two different places? Hades is the same as the Old Testament Sheol and, with Jesus’ words about torment in Hades, can be seen as the horrendous remand prison before the final judgement. Gehenna is the fire of destruction after the final judgement. We know that Jesus has the keys of Hades (Revelation 1:17-18). Could negative NDEs further underline this truth? Is it possible that he uses these keys to seek and save the lost who are trapped there?
The NDE of Eben Alexander, recounted in his book Proof of Heaven (Piatkus), was of both a paradise-like place of light with angels and music and a Hades-like place of darkness, tormented isolation and brutal noise. Alexander called the nasty place “the realm of the earthworm’s-eye view”. This correlates closely with the Old Testament understanding of Sheol as the dwelling of souls in the grave, under the surface of the earth.
Alexander is a sceptical, scientific neurosurgeon. He knows from the medical data that absolutely nothing was happening in his brain during the time when he was understood as dead. He concludes that he was registering experience in his soul or spirit rather than in his physical brain, and that the information stored in his soul became accessible to his brain only after he was resuscitated.
Matching NDS with scripture
NDEs, as with all matters spiritual and ethical, need to be subjected to the test of compatibility with Jesus and with scripture. However, Christians disagree about exactly what this test is. While NDEs do not appear in the Bible, it can certainly be argued that the common traits that people experience within NDEs are not contradicted by Jesus or scripture. It’s also possible that NDEs are part of the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth. The great test of the work of the Holy Spirit is the fruit ensuing. The fruit of NDEs is, for the most part, lives changed to accord with the priorities of repentance and love. This is the testimony of many people, including some who became Christians because of their NDE and are now Christian ministers, such as Ian McCormack and Howard Storm.
Another example of a NDE lining up with scripture is Ritchie’s NDE, recounted in his book Return from Tomorrow (Revell, 1988). George saw a large number of people “locked into habits of mind and emotion, into hatred, lust, destructive thought-patterns” with “yelps of envy and wounded selfimportance”. As he looked, with some compassion, he also began to see “That entire unhappy plain was hovered over by beings seemingly made of light…I could see that these immense presences were bending over the little creatures on the plain”. Ritchie thought he might be seeing angels, and Jesus himself.
Ten commons traits of NDS
Raymond Moody identified ten common traits in near-death experiences:
1. A sense of being dead, often through looking down on the body
2. Peace and painlessness
3. A sense of having some kind of body even though being out of the physical body
4. Being in or going through a dark tunnel or portal
5. Emerging into intense, loving, light, often with an awareness of angel-type figures or friends or relatives who have died (Moody knew that some people emerge into darkness and distress but did not include this as a trait)
6. Encountering the Being of Light
7. ‘The life review’ in which people see every action and feel the effects of their actions on other people. People then understand how supremely important it is to love others
8. Rising rapidly into the heavens
9. Reluctance to return to this world because the light and the Being of Light so wonderfully loving
10. Different time and space; time is greatly compressed and uncountable in our terms, space can be travelled instantaneously, by wanting to be somewhere else
I said I went to heaven because i thought it would get me attention
“All I clearly saw was that not one of these bickering beings on the plain had been abandoned. They were being attended, watched over, ministered to. And the equally observable fact was that not one of them knew it…” Revelation 14:9-11 describes people in torment, before the final judgement, “in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb”, a verse completely unknown to Ritchie and to many Christians.
NDEs correspond with biblical teaching in other ways. These are usually in principles rather than in minute detail. It’s also interesting what’s missing from NDEs. In no NDE do we hear of a loved one already in paradise saying, “When you go back to your world, keep in touch.” It is significant that in a culture where spiritualism and spirit guides are common, NDEs give a different message. Those who have died are not spiritually ‘here’ in some way, whether in the sky or in the grave. They have gone to somewhere very other, to be with the Being of Light. We are not to talk to them or to try to hear from them. The supremely important and only guidance in life, according to those in heaven, is to love your neighbour as you love yourself, to repent of your sins out of compassion for those you have wounded, and to trust in the Being of Light.
Miracles from heaven
Annabel Beam is another American youngster who stands by her story of dying and experiencing heaven. The book Miracles from Heaven (Piatkus) and film recounts the experience of 12-year-old Annabel who, in 2011, fell 30 feet off a branch into the hollow inside of an old tree. Tree climbing was a rare activity for Annabel, because she had lived for years in constant pain due to an incurable intestinal disorder. Stuck inside the tree, Annabel struggled to breathe and tried hopelessly to scramble up. Then she found herself in a different place, in tremendous light, where she sat on Jesus’ lap. She was told that she would have to return to this life. Annabel protested that this was mean. She did not want to return to the constant pain. Jesus said, “When the firemen get you out there’ll be nothing wrong with you.”
In hospital the doctors were surprised that she only had a few scratches. She thought this is what Jesus meant by saying “there’ll be nothing wrong with you”. She continued taking her various medications. Both Annabel and her mother, Christy, noticed that the pain, and the inflammation that caused the pain, were not as bad as before. Annabel thought she was having a good day, then a good week, then a good month. Christy gained the doctors’ permission to try stopping the medication. As the medication stopped, Annabel’s intestines worked normally. Annabel and Christy continue to see Annabel’s healing as evidence that her NDE was real.
The being of light brings new life, beyond death
Who is this being of light?
The Being of Light, as commonly seen in NDEs, is full of grace and truth. The Being of Light shines on every human being who has died. The Being of Light brings and is the great love, compassionate and forgiving. The Being of Light teaches that love is the great command. The Being of Light prompts some people to flee into darkness because they do not want their deeds to be exposed in the light. The Being of Light brings new life, beyond death. The Being of Light is so attractive that all who come close never want to leave his presence. It is hard for Christians to hear about this being and not think, “That’s Jesus!”
A good number of people from a non-Christian background encounter the Being of Light and do not think he is Jesus. Does that stop Christians from making the identification with Jesus? Can Jesus minister to people who, for whatever reason, find it hard to see his true identity? Surely it the responsibility and the joy of Christians to point to the similarities between the Being of Light and Jesus.
As we hear again this Christmas of the light proclaimed at the beginning of John’s Gospel, and as we celebrate Jesus, the Light of the World, maybe we can appreciate Jesus and his love for humanity afresh. When we take NDEs seriously as gifts from God, we see Jesus more clearly as the Being of Light who shines, and will shine, on every person. The Being of Light has become flesh. All people will come to see his luminous divine glory, to be invited into his glory, although some refuse. We have seen his glory already! We have received him and his light, his grace, truth, healing and forgiveness now. This life is only the beginning with Jesus. Alleluia!
ROGER HARPER is an Anglican minister, prison chaplain and writer. His book, The Lie of Hell (Ladder Media), is a detailed explanation of Hades and Gehenna as distinct places.